SANTA CLARA Dislocated fingers. Jammed thumbs. Torn receiver's gloves.
Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' flame-throwing quarterback, has left a trail of stinging hands at the University of Nevada and later with the 49ers. But his receivers say they've noticed a big change since Kaepernick arrived last season.
The quarterback, who in 2009 was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round to be a pitcher, doesn't exclusively throw fastballs anymore. He's learned how to throw some off-speed stuff, too.
"When he first came in here, every ball was 100 miles an hour," said fullback Bruce Miller. "I definitely think he's worked his tail off to get to where he is now and to progress his game. It's something that we've all noticed the touch passes and placing the ball instead of trying to fire it in there."
Kaepernick's finesse game promises to be tested today against the Miami Dolphins and as the season goes on.
The St. Louis Rams last week offered future opponents a nice template for defending Kaepernick, playing soft coverage, taking away his deeper receivers and forcing the 49ers quarterback to check down to his third and fourth options, which are often the team's running back or fullback.
Miller, in fact, has had five catches for 54 yards in the past two games. He had two catches for 24 yards in the 10 previous contests.
It's still a small sample size, but Kaepernick's pass attempts have been shrinking since his smashing debut against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 19. In that game, he averaged 10.6 yards per pass attempt and had four completions of 25 yards or more.
A week later against the New Orleans Saints, he averaged 9.24 yards per attempt.
Against the Rams, that average dropped to 6.5 yards a try, and he had only one pass play to Michael Crabtree that surpassed 25 yards.
Asked how much the Dolphins would study the Rams' and Jeff Fisher's game plan against the 49ers, Miami head coach Joe Philbin said they'd "take a peek at it."
"Certainly you may want to steal things if they can fit into your system and your scheme," he said. "It's hard to copycat and draw up a whole new plan of attack in one week. But certainly we've looked at those tapes, no question."
The 49ers' coaches said they were impressed by Kaepernick for two reasons despite the loss to the Rams. They liked the way he bounced back after the catastrophic pitch play in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick led the 49ers on a six-play drive that included his 50-yard scramble, and the 49ers took the lead on a short David Akers field goal.
They also liked the way Kaepernick moved through his progressions against a Rams defense that did an excellent job of taking away his primary targets.
"I think a lot of teams this year have chosen to do that they've taken away the deep throws and tried to force the underneath stuff," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "At times, we've been very, very efficient taking advantage of that. It's something we've got to continue to do. You can't control what the other team does, so if they're going to take away something, you want to work somewhere else, and our guys have done a pretty good job of that so far."
As a rookie last season, Kaepernick would put the same sizzle on the short, underneath routes as he would on a 30-yard out pattern. It got to the point where running back Frank Gore told Kaepernick, "I'm only six feet away. Take it easy."
"He's gotten better with it," Gore said. "A lot better."
Miller, meanwhile, was in Kaepernick's 2011 draft class and served as one of his receivers at the scouting combine. Miller was converting from defensive end at the time, meaning he not only had to quickly learn how to catch passes, he had to learn how to catch passes from the hardest-throwing player in that draft class.
Miller said Kaepernick never dislocated any of his fingers, unlike wide receiver Randy Moss who had to have a digit reset on the sideline after a Kaepernick rocket shot through his grasp against Chicago.
"But they still hurt sometimes," Miller said. "You still get those laces tearing my gloves."